Disabled in Development Project Storyteller #5: Tiffany Yu

To say that we can only be charity recipients is another way our community is dehumanized.”


Color photo of Tiffany Yu, an Asian-American woman in a bright blue shirt, looking off to the side and smiling.

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Yu

Multi-colored hexagonsI look to other movements for best practices and learnings that we can bring back to the disability community. I also acknowledge that we are still working on making all of our movements more intersectional.”


Name:  Tiffany Yu
Please share how you prefer to introduce yourself:
I am building and funding things I wish existed when I was younger. Today, I’m on a mission to increase access and opportunity in the disability community.
I do that as the CEO & Founder of Diversability, an award-winning social enterprise focused on building community through the celebration of our diverse disability lived experiences and as the Founder of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter, which has awarded $30,500 in grants to 31 disability projects in 6 countries. I also serve as a Mayoral-appointed member of the San Francisco Mayor’s Disability Council and am 2019 California Miss Amazing, serving as an ambassador for girls and women with disabilities. I have had the opportunity to share our work at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, TEDx, and media outlets like Forbes, Marie Claire, and the Guardian.

Your pronouns are:
she/her
Current Job Title(s) and Organization(s) (if applicable):
CEO & Founder, Diversability; Founder, Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter
Years in philanthropy on both the fund-seeking and fund-giving sides:
1-5 (Awesome Disability was started in 2017)
6-10 (we received a Reimagine Georgetown Grant to start Diversability in 2009)
Number of years in the workforce prior to 2007, when there was a surge into social media?
0
Number of years in the workforce prior to 1990, when the ADA was passed?
0
Number of years in the workforce prior to 1977, when the federal Section 504 regulations were signed?
0
Have you held any positions that make funding decisions and/or sets funding priorities?
Yes, I am Founder & Dean of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter, which awards $1,000 USD grants to disability projects globally.

Multi-colored hexagons“I acknowledge the amount of privilege I have within my own community and identities and see that as power and an opportunity to pay it forward and continue to lift our community up. The most positive experience with Awesome Disability has been signaling to the world that we are not just the beneficiary or recipient of charity but that we are also the leaders, funders, and decision makers.”


Are you currently opening identifying as disabled, managing a chronic illness, and/or dealing with aging issues in your workplace or with contracting companies, or in volunteer roles?
Yes, I identify as disabled.
Do you have any colleagues on your team or in your organization who identify as disabled/chronically ill/aging?
Yes, all of our team members at Diversability identify as disabled.
Do any of the funding decision-makers who are your peers, or who you report to, identify as disabled/chronically ill/aging?
Yes, all of our Trustees at the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter identify as disabled.
Have you had any ongoing connections with other disabled/chronically ill/aging philanthropy professionals where you can support each other?
With our Trustees, yes. However, our “support” is mainly limited to interactions digitally, though I have met with a few of our Bay Area Trustees in person.  Outside of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter, no.
Have you felt it was difficult to build strong relationships with peer colleagues, superiors, donors because of communication barriers?
Sometimes, I acknowledge that we can be better about inviting and interacting with our Deaf and hard of hearing peers.
Have you ever been provided with professional development, mentorship, and/or leadership training programs where you didn’t have to provide informal programmatic and/or physical access advising?
Yes
Have you ever experienced what you consider significant secondary stress, anxiety, and/or fear about meeting professional expectations because of disability/chronic illness/aging-related barriers and/or stigma?
Yes
Have you ever left a position because of disability/chronic illness/aging-related barriers and/or policies made continuing in the position untenable?
No
Have you ever been told in a work performance-related conversation with a superior that your presence is an inspiration to others, and/or that your presence in the workplace is itself remarkable?
No

Multi-colored hexagons“We need more disability role models at all levels. I would urge philanthropic spaces to bring more of our disability community members into leadership roles and give us decision-making power and visibility.”


Have you ever been physically touched, grabbed, patted on the head, had your assistive equipment handled without your consent by a peer, superior, or donor in a work environment?
No
Have you ever struggled to participate in team-building exercises, workplace wellness programs, or other initiatives that were optional but not understood as presenting access barriers?
Yes
Have you belonged to any other employee resource groups (ERGs), affinity groups for disabled/chronically ill/aging people? Any for other groups (parents, LGBT, etc.) where you found support?
Yes, I was a member of the Disability Interest Forum at Goldman Sachs and founded the disability ERG at Bloomberg. I have also been involved with women’s groups and my first foray into these types of groups was co-founding my university’s Taiwanese American Students Association in 2006.
How have you learned from/found support for advancing disability inclusion from other marginalized communities that you’re a member of?
I have always been a big believer in showing up. If I can, I show up for communities that look like mine in solidarity and I show up for communities that don’t look like mine as an ally. I look to other movements for best practices and learnings that we can bring back to the disability community. I also acknowledge that we are still working on making all of our movements more intersectional.

Multi-colored hexagons“Disability employment numbers are still abysmal, partly due to public benefit system restrictions but also due to bias and stigma against disability at all levels both within and outside of the disability community.”


What has your most positive experience of being disabled/chronically ill/aging in your philanthropic work life been?
I never saw what we were doing at the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter as “philanthropy” until fellow trustee Ingrid Tischer joined us in 2018. I acknowledge the amount of privilege I have within my own community and identities and see that as power and an opportunity to pay it forward and continue to lift our community up.
The most positive experience with Awesome Disability has been signaling to the world that we are not just the beneficiary or recipient of charity but that we are also the leaders, funders, and decision makers. To say that we can only be charity recipients is another way our community is dehumanized.
What type of system changes or workplace policy in philanthropic spaces have/would you recommend, based on your experience of disability/chronic illness/aging?
We need more disability role models at all levels. I would urge philanthropic spaces to bring more of our disability community members into leadership roles and give us decision-making power and visibility.
Can you describe any gaps you’ve seen between commitments to disability inclusion in principle versus practice?
The numbers show that hiring disabled people positively impacts a company’s bottom line (source: Accenture). The numbers show that people with disabilities control $1 trillion of annual discretionary spending globally (source: Return on Disability). We are an asset to companies and we are a viable consumer segment.
Disability employment numbers are still abysmal, partly due to public benefit system restrictions but also due to bias and stigma against disability at all levels both within and outside of the disability community. People see the disability and judge the ability. And while inclusive design and inclusive fashion are conversations that are building traction, there is still more work to be done.

Multi-colored hexagons“I think a lot about my own internalized ableism that I sometimes carry into these spaces, whether it is politely declining help when I really need it or fielding questions on my disability even though they are closely tied to my childhood trauma and can be triggering.”


If yes, did you have any opinions about how disability was framed and whether disabled people were leading it?
One of the many things I appreciate about Awesome Disability is that everyone has an equal vote. While I ascribe to the “nothing about us, without us” way of thinking, as someone who grew up incredibly self-reliant, I also acknowledge the power of human connection and the interdependence of our relationships. We need to build allies within the disability community but also bring in our nondisabled peers to help champion us in spaces that we don’t yet have access to.
I am proud and strong in my disability identity and the way I think about supporting disability projects comes through that lens. Part of the reason I started Diversability was because I didn’t want to continue to carry the burden of feeling like I needed to be fixed, cured, or “normal.” In my mind, that was not a productive way for me to think about my life. I would recommend checking out the hashtag #WhenICallMyselfDisabled for many powerful stories from within our community.
Philanthropic and development goals typically require access to spaces where socializing happens, travel, and multiple forms of communication. Can you describe instances when your work was affected by access barriers and/or the costs related to them that you’ve had to cover?
I think a lot about my own internalized ableism that I sometimes carry into these spaces, whether it is politely declining help when I really need it or fielding questions on my disability even though they are closely tied to my childhood trauma and can be triggering. I think about what it feels like to act casual when an icebreaker or food buffet is not accessible to me and the many things that I may do in order to allow the nondisabled world to feel more comfortable with my presence.
I also know that no one is intentionally trying to cause harm. That said, I’ve personally challenged myself to have more fun with it all, by defaulting to “yes please” every time someone offers help, being more vocal about what I need, and adding fun artwork to my splint as a conversation starter (since I know people might stare anyway).
Good allies and collaborative partners don’t reveal problematic attitudes to disabled partners, or require significant labor from us to educate them. Can you describe examples of when you had to deal with attitude-related barriers in your philanthropic and/or development work?
As I mentioned earlier, I never really saw what we were doing as philanthropy. I just saw it as a handful of disabled people coming together to help lift up and pay it forward to other members of our community. Because I am disability-centered in all of my work, I have never seen what we are doing as “good” but rather as things that are needed in this world. Now that some people might say that what we are doing is philanthropy, I think it’s pretty cool! We might operate at smaller dollar amounts but we are still making an impact and I hope opening up more pathways for disability projects to get the recognition they deserve.
I truly believe that if we make all of our work as disability-centric as possible, we will make things better for everyone. So to our allies and partners, please be more disability-centric in your work! And if you need our help, please pay us for it!
What’s it been like for you securing foundation grants and/or awarding them?
I often joke that the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter is one of a suite of disability projects that I am working on at any one point in time, but this is one of the most impactful things I have done in recent years. It is extremely rewarding to invest in people and projects who are working to make an impact in our disability community. And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge all of our disabled trustees (past and present) who have contributed and been so foundational to making Awesome Disability a reality.
If you could give just one piece of advice to your younger self about being a disabled person in philanthropy, what would it be?
I often come back to this quote from Harry Winston that says, “People will stare. Make  it worth their while.” Along those lines, my advice would be something like, you’ve got the spotlight/microphone, what are you going to do with it now?

THANK YOU, TIFFANY!


Multi-colored hexagons

Each Monday the Disabled in Development Project (DiD) features one disabled, chronically ill and/or aging Storyteller who shares their experience in advancing disability equity in philanthropy and fundraising.

DiD’s community development goal is to make philanthropy more effective and thus more powerful by centering more disabled people from multiply-marginalized communities. DiD Storytellers educate funders about ableism, celebrate advances in disability inclusion, and testify to the ableist structural barriers they’ve encountered, and that may have halted their career advancement or forced them out.

All Storytellers self-select questions to answer from an extensive list. All Storytellers are modestly compensated for providing their expertise on how to move disability inclusion from principle to practice in philanthropy and fundraising.

If you’d like to become a Storyteller or Field Ally, contact DiD Founder and Director Ingrid Tischer at itischer@talesfromthecrip.org. Tell your truth about our disabled labor to transform philanthropy!

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